Scaling the ATAR Heights…

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Preshil’s decision to adopt the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, in place of the VCE, was based on the recognition that it offered our students a rich, rigorous education which valued their social and personal development as well as their intellectual growth. We chose a program that encouraged collaboration in place of ranked competition, differentiated learning instead of standardised assessment and conceptual understanding as distinct from simplistic memorisation of content. We opted for a globally accredited qualification rather than one specific to the state of Victoria.

The fact that different subjects are not scaled in IB assessment means that students can choose what they love, rather than choosing the subjects most likely to be ‘scaled up’. The IB actually recognises and rewards the interests, activities and contributions to the community of our students; they are not expected to give up all the life-affirming interests and pursuits that feed them and make them who they are. For many students embarking on the great VCE/ATAR race, the expectation is that they strip down to the bare essentials; if it doesn’t help them achieve more marks they should give it up…

For Preshil, a student’s ATAR has never been the end point; we want so much more for them.

But according to an EXCLUSIVE ‘investigation’ published some weeks ago in The Australian newspaper titled “Schools ‘gaming uni entry system’ through the International Baccalaureate” we now find our lofty educational aims being subjected to scrutiny and exposed for the scurrilous, low-level cheating behaviour apparently they are ‘…some private schools are using the IB… to game entry to the nation’s most coveted degrees.’

According to Wikipedia: ‘Gaming the system (also gaming or bending the rules, or rigging, abusing, cheating, milking, playing, cheating the system, or working the system) can be defined as using the rules and procedures meant to protect a system to, instead, manipulate the system for a desired outcome.’ Goodness!

But despite accusing IB schools of cheating, the article then points out that it is the scaling that ‘is adversely affecting gifted students aiming for a top ATAR of 99.95… In NSW, HSC students’ final results are scaled, while IB students’ results are not. This means the number of maximum ATARs for HSC students is effectively capped at 0.05 per cent of their population age cohort.’

This is a very succinct description of what is wrong with a scaled system; but the solution to the problem, according to this way of thinking, is to subject IB students to a similarly distorted form of scaling, then everyone is unfairly treated equally!

It is writing such as this which makes me regret I no longer get to teach clear thinking.

Following the lead of The Australian, The Age welcomes what it refers to as an ‘overhaul’. In the future IB students who achieve a perfect result, in Australia, will be brought into line with scaled systems. This future plan speculates that 85% of IB students will be unaffected or better off than their VCE counterparts and 15% slightly less advantaged than they are at present.

At the same time that this pressure is being brought to bear to preserve the ATAR ranking so useful for school marketing and league tables, tertiary systems and institutions all around Australia are looking to develop better ways of selecting students for their courses. Already some 60% of tertiary places are decided using information other than a simple ATAR.

Together with major employers, who are developing ways of bypassing the ATAR system altogether, the tertiary sector is placing more and more emphasis on exactly those qualities prized by the IB; evidence of community involvement, creative and collaborative problem-solving, individual passion and the capacity for research; digital portfolios and transcripts that provide evidence of capabilities beyond the reductive content knowledge that feeds percentage scores. Many now list the IB points required for course entry separately, as well as the minimum ATAR.

I’m looking forward to a real overhaul of the transition from secondary to tertiary education. This would mean that students finish school with such an array of multi-dimensional assessments and achievements; where something as simplistic and artificially derived as a two-dimensional ranking would simply make no sense.

Now that would be newsworthy!

– Marilyn Smith, Principal

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